Paul Edinger’s Christmas Eve 2000 kick helped change course of Lions history

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News

Christmas Eve, 2000: The kick that changed everything.

Well, that’s not exactly true, but it’s undeniable that Paul Edinger’s 54-yard boot to end the Detroit Lions season sent the franchise into a tailspin like no one could have imagined.

Bears kicker Paul Edinger, shown here in a game in 2002, delivered a 54-yard field goal to beat the Lions in the 2000 season finale at the Pontiac Silverdome.

It resonates again this week as another holiday meeting with the Chicago Bears beckons on Thursday.

“That was by far the biggest kick of my career up to that point,” Edinger said recently from St. Augustine, Fla., where he lives with his family. “I had a great snapper in Patrick Mannelly and a holder in our punter Louie Aguiar, they were pretty much automatic. So it was pretty much up to me to make that kick. 

“I was still green, really, even at the end of the season, so I just trotted on and just gave it my best kick and just drove it through.”

It seems fitting that Edinger is a Michigan guy, born in Frankfort near the top of the Lower Peninsula’s left pinkie, a former standout kicker at Michigan State.

His dad’s family is hardcore into the Detroit teams, so he grew up a bit of a Lions fan. But ultimately being raised in Lakeland, Florida, Edinger gravitated more toward Tampa Bay, rooting for the Buccaneers in a 1997 wild-card win over the Lions during his sophomore year at Michigan State.

Still, Edinger considered himself a big Barry Sanders fan, hoping to match up against him in the pros. Like everyone in this state, the kicker was shocked when the Hall of Famer hung it up following the next season.

But coach Bobby Ross still dragged the Barry-less 1999 team into the playoffs at 8-8, though the Lions lost the final four games of the season and then got dumped 27-13 by Washington in the playoffs.

In that game, Sanders’ replacement Ron Rivers had one carry for 6 yards, with Cory Schlesinger (23 rushing yards) and Gus Frerotte (16) the only other ballcarriers that afternoon for Detroit.

Paul Edinger (2) kicked in the NFL for six seasons, including five with the Bears.

The 2000 season appeared to be unraveling similarly under Ross as a two-game losing streak dropped the Lions to 5-4 when the coach gave himself his own bus ticket out of town and quit.

Former Michigan coach Gary Moeller, who guided the linebackers and was an assistant head coach, took over.

Moeller won his first three, but lost divisional road games in Minnesota and Green Bay. The Lions would have to win at the 9-5 New York Jets and then take care of business against last-place Chicago to make the playoffs for the seventh time in 10 seasons.

Jeff Hartings fell on a fourth-quarter James Stewart fumble for a touchdown to beat the Jets 10-7, as John Hall missed a 35-yard field goal that would’ve tied in the closing seconds.

All the Lions had to do was beat quarterback Shane Matthews, future Lions coach Dick Jauron and the 4-11 Bears in the season finale.

Which brings up an amazing fact: Because the Lions couldn’t sell out a do-or-die game to get to the playoffs, it was blacked out on television locally — just like the 1993 playoff loss to Green Bay at the Silverdome ... you remember the Sterling Sharpe game, wide open in the end zone.

Like the Edinger kick and the Brett Favre heave, so many of the gut punches came delivered by radio voices Mark Champion and Jim Brandstatter, while fans nervously paced kitchens, sat in cars throughout the area, or huddled around stereos waiting for the inevitable “man, oh man” from Champion to seal another Sunday fate.

“You realize that you’re the eyes of the fans who are not in the stadium, so I think it does carry some importance,” Champion said. “We obviously enjoyed the blackout because it benefited us.”

A joyous holiday mood seemed forthcoming early, as the Lions led 10-0 in the first quarter after Charlie Batch found David Sloan for a 9-yard score.

However, Edinger banged home 37- and 50-yard field goals in the second quarter to make it 10-6.

Even worse, Bears rookie Brian Urlacher sacked Batch late in the second quarter, knocking him out of the game and bringing in backup Stoney Case, who started and won the opener against New Orleans.

After Marty Booker gave Chicago the lead on a pass from backup Cade McNown, Case rushed 13 yards for a score that gave the Lions a 17-13 lead.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Case was picked off by R.W. McQuarters, who took the pass 61 yards for a touchdown and a 20-17 lead.

Jason Hanson’s 26-yard field goal tied the game right after the 2-minute warning, and the Lions got the ball back after McNown went three-and-out.

Near midfield, Case then fumbled scrambling out of the pocket, giving the Bears the ball with 39 seconds left. This would be the 28-year-old’s final NFL game.

Five plays later, including two McNown completions to James Allen, Edinger had his chance for a career long.

Coming into the game, the rookie had not even attempted a field goal from 50-plus and was 6 for 10 from 40 yards and beyond. But with Astroturf just like Spartan Stadium, where Edinger was an All-Big Ten kicker, Edinger felt at home, complete with a handful of friends and family in attendance.

“It was the same turf, it was indoor, so you take all the elements out of it, and the footing was guaranteed,” Edinger said. “It was all up to me kicking the ball. All the intangibles were taken out of play on that kick.”

The 54-yarder was his second career long of the afternoon, securing the 23-20 win.

It was one of Mannelly’s 2,282 perfect snaps of his 16-year career, and the last play Aguiar’s 10-year career.

“That kick is up,” Champion recalled saying, “and the season is over.”

Paul Edinger (1) was an all-Big Ten kicker at Michigan State.

For Chicago, it was sweet relief from 1991, when former Lions coach Wayne Fontes lit a victory cigar during a team party as the Bears lost a Monday night football game to San Francisco, giving the Lions the divisional championship and a first-round bye.

The rest is history for Detroit: The Chuck Schmidt era, where the head coaches heavily influenced front office decisions, was over.

At 9-7, what is it about winning seasons that the Lions truly despise? Factoring in two strikes in the 1980s, this is a franchise that averaged 6.4 wins a season since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978.

At 4-3, Moeller is one of four Lions coaches since the Fords bought the team in 1963 to end his Detroit tenure with a winning record. All four — George Wilson and Joe Schmidt prior to Moeller and later Jim Caldwell — ended their tenures with winning seasons.

So Matt Millen was brought in that offseason, only to install Marty Mornhinweg at the controls, where he went 5-27 in two seasons.

In the end, Millen directed the franchise to a 31-84 tenure that continued into the 0-16 toilet in 2008, though he was fired three games into that crashing crescendo.

Edinger, who would play six seasons and made the most extra points (164) of all-time for kickers who never missed one, said "Thank You" postcards from St. Louis fans awaited him at the team facility the next season. D'Marco Farr offered to take him out on the town in Chicago with a limousine as his Rams were the beneficiaries of his kick.

On the other hand, Edinger still hears about the dark reversal of fortunes his kick helped thrust upon Lions fans.

While standing in line at Universal Studio with a fellow dad as a chaperone for a recent class trip, Edinger got a call from a 313 phone number. He told the man what the call was likely about, revealing his full identity to the Michigan resident, whose Christmas Edinger helped ruin in 2000.

“He said, I can’t believe you, I want to throw you over the railing,’”  Edinger said. “He had no idea, but as soon as he put two and two together, it was all over.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.